Correction: Earlier versions of this article misquoted the attorney for five Howard University students as saying she is not seeking monetary damages. The lawyer, Christal Edwards, said she is seeking an unspecified amount on behalf of the students. This version has been updated.
Five Howard University students have filed suit in federal court alleging that school officials did not do enough to protect them from an employee later convicted of sexual harassment and assault.
The students, all women, say that George Bright-Abu, their work-study supervisor at Howard University’s Founders Library, verbally and physically assaulted them from September 2010 to April 2011. The suit alleges that even though students complained about Bright-Abu’s conduct, nothing was done until D.C. police were notified.
“I really hope that no one else has to experience what I had to go through,” said Rukayatu Bello, 22, one of the plaintiffs in the civil suit, filed Monday in United States Court for the District of Columbia. “I had been working there, and he had been saying inappropriate things to me, and then it escalated when he went ahead and started touching me.”
Howard University spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said that when the administration became aware of the allegations, it worked closely with law enforcement and conducted an internal investigation. “The employee was quickly placed on administrative leave and later terminated from the university,” Hamilton said.
According to the lawsuit, the harassment began when Bright-Abu asked one of the plaintiffs, Fatima Rashid, if she had a boyfriend and if she had sex with her boyfriend. Christal Edwards, one of the attorneys for the women, said Bright-Abu’s conduct went from verbal abuse to unwanted touching.
In April, Bello and Mercedes Woodson called D.C. police and filed a criminal report. Bright-Abu was later arrested and charged.
During Bright-Abu’s criminal trial, Rashid testified that things had gotten so bad she became afraid to go into his office.
In July, he was found guilty of two counts of misdemeanor sexual abuse and one count of simple assault in connection with the allegations.
Bello and Woodson graduated from Howard in May. Edwards said three of the women — Rashid, Olayinka Oni-Orisan and Kera Singelton — remain enrolled, and the university has done little to change things.
“We are asking that they update their policy and procedures in regard to handling allegations of sexual harassment,” Edwards said. “They claim they have a policy in place, but these students were preyed upon and nothing happened.”
“There has been a culture at Howard where Mr. Bright-Abu was known as a flirt in the library with the students, and his superiors didn’t do anything,” said Steve Bullock, who also represents the women. “These were students who used work-study as part of their financial aid, and here was a supervisor taking advantage of the situation. Regardless of Howard’s legacy, we can’t sweep this kind of thing under the rug.”
Hamilton, the university spokeswoman, said Howard takes the safety of its students seriously and has a strict sexual harassment policy.